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Umoja's children

Tales of surprising success from at-risk high schoolers in Chicago.

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By Anne Marie Feld

Learn more about the Umoja Student Development Corporation and Executive Director Lila Leff's tips for feeding young minds.

Corey Hobart*

Corey Hobart is the son of a single mom, who spends much of her time caring for a severely disabled sister. As a freshman, Corey wandered into the Umoja offices and asked if it was too soon to apply for college admission. Instead of handing him some brochures and telling him to come back as a senior, Leff took him to several college campuses and had him talk to kids who came from similar backgrounds. Corey signed up for leadership programs that taught him to debate persuasively and use varied methods of researching an issue. He went on to give presentations on issues such as police brutality, race relations, and the pitfalls of public transportation in East Lawndale to local community groups and boards.

Corey recently graduated from Ohio State University and has just completed his first year as an AmeriCorps volunteer, teaching in a grade school. Next year he’ll teach at a Chicago high school. His career aspirations currently swing between becoming a chef and running for president of the United States.

Keisha Jackson*

Keisha Jackson was Manley’s valedictorian this year, but without Umoja she could have easily ended up dropping out. Socially awkward and artistic, she was bullied at school, and her tumultuous home life gave her little support. After bouncing around from state to state, in and out of foster care, Keisha had moved in her with her dad and eight siblings.

Umoja helped Keisha develop skills around friendship — talking with her to help her understand her interactions with others. From there she got deeply involved in community service. She won scholarships to an arts program in Wyoming and a service program on a Montana Indian reservation, working with local teens to build a preschool.

This fall Keisha is headed to Trinity College in Connecticut, courtesy of the Posse Foundation. The foundation gives full four-year scholarships, sending a group of students of color to a predominantly white school and giving them additional support — weekly pre-collegiate meetings to build academic, communication, and leadership skills and, once they’re on campus, frequent group and individual meetings with mentors and retreats to discuss campus issues.

*Names have been changed to preserve students' privacy.

Anne Marie Feld is a writer and editor whose work has appeared in the New York Times; on BabyCenter; and in the anthologies Mommy Wars, Because I Love Her, and Modern Love. She lives in San Francisco with her husband and two children, ages 3 and 5, though both seem to be teenagers.

Comments from readers

"I agree with the previous post. I am white and my son is biracial and I make just enough money to cover our household bills and aftercare. When he grows and needs new clothes, it is a struggle. I need a lot of dental work done, but do not have funds to do it. I get turned down for assistance on a regular basis because my income is above poverty level. It is really difficult."
"All children in middle class America have these same challenges. Consider divorce rates and disparity in income to debt ratios for all households. It's time to even the 'help and outreach' to children of ALL color and creed. My son and I are white and do not recieve the same help and empathy as persons of color. We fight twice as hard to access services for which, we feel, we are 'uninvited' to share. Just something to think about."